Gaming app developers beware: Here's why Turf Geography Club failed

By Erin Griffith , written on February 21, 2013

From The News Desk

After Foursquare moved away from its roots as a check-in game, new location-based mobile games offering "real world monopoly" games stepped into its place. Among them were Landlord, and Turf Geography Club, the loveably twee 8-bit game of virtual Risk.

Last week the company announced on Facebook that it will close:

It's been a labor of love for the last two years and definitely not something that we can easily part with. However, we figure that there are newer flashier things to spend our time building. Things which we've begun to design and code. Turf was a fun foray into gaming that we have learned so much from. This is by no means our final adventure.
Turf will keep its servers running for two weeks, founder Michael Tseng said.

The company, launched in August 2011, had raised $600,000 in seed funds from RRE Ventures, Lerer Ventures, Vaizra Seed Fund and angel investors Eric Stein, David Perez, Josh Spear, Spencer Adler, Anthony Casalena, David Tisch’s Box Group, Jon Steinberg and Micah Spear after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Turf was not a victim of the Series A crunch, Tseng says. The company's investors were happy to throw in more capital as Turf began to run low on funds.

The problem was he didn't want to raise more money for something that hadn't gotten the initial traction he'd wanted. Turf had gathered users in the low tens of thousands. Many of them were ardent fans, but even for a niche product, it wasn't enough scale. "We wanted to ensure the project was a home run before we asked for more funds," he says.

So for the past month, he's made a big push for new users to little avail. His awesome Turf torch, a flashlight app served as a user acquisition tool, was rejected by Apple as being too similar to other flashlight tools. He acknowledged that Turf served a narrow audience of people who understood check-ins, cared about location, enjoyed Monopoly, enjoyed video games, and were fans of retro 8-bit design. A love of Wes Anderson helped too.

Tseng looked at the biggest mobile game successes, many of which were built with giant, well-capitalized teams. Supercell, the Swedish maker of hit games Clash of the Clans and Hay Day, has 60 employees and $12 million in venture backing from Accel Partners. The company makes $750,000 a day from its games.

Turf was built with $600,000 and three people. It was two-year slog of pushing millions of 8-bit pixels, during which Tseng watched many social apps launch and flame out. "We were the turtle and there were a lot of rabbits passing us by," he says.

Game design is tricky that way -- there is no such thing as minimally viable product or lean startup. The game must arrive finished, and this one was an elaborate beast to build.

What's worse, mobile gamers are a fickle bunch. Look no further than the dramatic rise and fall of Draw Something. Parent company OMGPop sold to Zynga at exactly the right moment -- just as its users were beginning to tire of its novelty. "With game design you do all this work and you're lucky if your game is fun for a month," Tseng says. "If you can squeeze like two months out of it, awesome. Congratulations, you're crushing it at that point."

"Luckily people liked Turf for several months," he adds, noting a difficult reality facing any startup founder: "How much more would it have hurt if people only liked it for a week? It's a really daunting way to work." Tseng's next project will involve a much leaner go-to-market-and-iterate-like-hell approach, he says.

Despite the difficulty of Turf's outcome, Tseng says he wouldn't have done it differently. Without the investor money, the app would have fizzled out into cult classic status immediately after it delivered its Kickstarter rewards.

Shutting down the app left its founders in a tricky place, since, like Farmville, users were encouraged to purchase virtual goods to build up their presence in the game. Tseng refunded several users out of pocket.

[Image via Turf Geography Club]